Better Environment, Better Team – 5 Ways Changing Conditions Can Solve Problems


Fish discover water last. — Anonymous

When Atomic Object was searching for a new office space, it made me think about what makes a good work environment and if there were any research studies that supported my personal experiences. I did some research, and what I found changed the way I view how people work together.

I realized an “environment” is composed of much more than just the obvious physical objects—though they are important too. Things like the layout of your office space, the people you are interacting with, the information you are exposed to, and even the processes you engage in—they’re all parts that make up the larger picture of your unique work environment.

While I predominately relate the sociological theories I discovered to the context of a work environment, they can also be applied in infinitely distinct ways to someone’s personal life.

1. Make the Unobserved Observed

Numerous studies have shown that additional information available at the time of decision making influences behavior. Sometimes when people are in the moment, they don’t consciously think about small decisions that may be having undesired consequences on your team/project. It’s not that they don’t “know,” just that they momentarily “forgot.”

This can be countered by adding an equally small environmental cue that gives them the information needed to push them towards the right decision. It works by taking people from reactive mode, to being in the more preferred responsive mode.

Concrete Examples

  • Let’s pretend you own a company and you are trying to become a “green certified” business. And let’s say that includes your company recycling 75% of its waste. Most people can agree that recycling is a good thing and are happy to try and oblige such a request, but that doesn’t meant they’ll do it consistently. One way you can encourage your employees to recycle more is by making their efforts more visible. For example, post on each recycling container a positive statistic how their efforts are helping. It may be something about how many trees, water, or energy your company has saved. Then on the landfill containers post, something about how much resources your company is currently still consuming—and keep them updated. This way each time someone goes to throw something away, they are reminded of how their action affects the company’s goal. Category: Physical and Information
  • Let’s say you are the manager of a restaurant. You want to increase your profit margin on several dishes by making ingredient costs more transparent. In particular you observed employees are not measuring and being too lax with the amount of a very expensive cheese ($100.00/lb). The manager decides to post on each cheese container a sign with its cost amount. Category: Physical and Information

Extremely small environmental cues give us information and tell us when we are full. For example, eating off a small plate versus a big plate may affect how much you eat. There was one particularly interesting study, where if you imagine a Pringles chip can, every tenth chip was a different color. Experimental subjects with the tenth different colored chip ate 37% less chips than the control group where all the chips were the same color. You don’t necessarily need a sign with words to make the unobserved, observed.


2. Help Teams Share Data Streams

A single person’s data stream consists of all the information that they are exposed to.

In the typical office, you have different groups of employees, each with a different role to fulfill. On a day-to-day basis, these different groups are exposed to vastly different information. This information drives what they view as a priority and influences their attitude and decisions.

To illustrate, take a hypothetical company with top level executives, a sales representative, and a software architect. The top level executives who analyze financial statements become the shareholder advocates. The sales representative who directly hears customer concerns becomes the customer advocate. Meanwhile the software architect, who works with the technical aspects of the product, becomes the code quality advocate.

When you have a team that either operates in silos, or is very bad at conveying and exchanging their particular data stream, you have a team that ends up making skewed—and potentially very bad—decisions towards a particular data stream. This is especially apparent when you consider how fallible human logic is and the many cognitive biases we are prone to making.

If you want to make informed team decisions, it’s important that everyone is aware of their role and data stream, and that everyone finds creative ways to effectively share information with other team members.

Concrete Examples

  • One way Atomic Object executives share financial information with employees is through what we call our “radiator.” The radiator is just a TV screen that displays our main KPI (key performance indicator). At any point in time, if anyone is curious they can walk over and get a general feel for how our company is doing financially by looking at this graph. The graph also allows an individual to see how they individually fit into the bigger financial picture. Category: Physical and Information


  • Another great example is Scrum. (Scrum is a common methodology for software development projects, but the principles can be applied to any project. Read the Scrum Guide to learn more.) One reason why Scrum is so successful is because of the Scrum Task Board. In its most basic implementation, it has three columns “to do,” “in progress,” and “done.” So if a sales representative is curious how development is going, they can look at this board and know what features are currently being worked on, and how much work needs to be completed. Category: Physical and Information

3. Fix “Broken Windows”

George Kelling a criminologist and founder of the “broken windows theory” started a movement in New York City that is credited for reducing felonies by as much as 75 percent. I was happy to discover this theory mentioned in the famous Pragmatic Programmer. They do a great job of explaining it:

“Even if you are a team of one, your project’s psychology can be a very delicate thing. One broken window, left unrepaired for any substantial length of time, instills in the inhabitants of the building a sense of abandonment—a sense that the powers that be don’t care about the building. So another window gets broken. People start littering. Graffiti appears. Serious structural damage begins. In a relatively short space of time, the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it, and the sense of abandonment becomes reality.”

Concrete Examples

  • I once worked on a software project where we frequently suffered from what I have coined as “broken test theory.” It started with a single neglected broken test and exploded to where we regularly had 200+ failing and poorly managed tests. That one broken test, like a single broken window, signaled to the team that no one cared, that it wasn’t a priority to fix. Category: Physical

The takeaway is to be on the look out for “broken windows” on your team, fix them immediately, and make it a team priority to keep them fixed.


4. Make Doing the Right Thing Easier & the Wrong Thing Harder

So how do you keep your broken windows fixed? One approach is to make fixing your broken windows unavoidable.

If you don’t put your seatbelt on in a modern car, an alarm will probably start beeping. If a restaurant manager is frequently upset over the cash register being off its expected value, it might be time to update it to one that gives automatic change. Someone got sick of reminding people to turn off the lights, so they made lights that turn off automatically.

Concrete Examples

  • On the failing tests project mentioned earlier, we had one category of tests (JavaScript Unit tests) that had a 100% pass rate, unlike our failing neglected category of tests (integration tests). The key difference between the two was our management process of the tests. Our integration tests, because they took significantly longer to verify (many, many hours), developers would merge code then forget to check if they caused any tests to fail. However, with our JavaScript unit tests, if a developer broke a test, they would be unable to submit their code to the project and as a result, were forced to fix it right away. Category: Process
  • Another great way to make doing the right thing easier is to structure it into your routine. Avoid saying, “Let us discuss this later.” Instead actually schedule a meeting on your calendar. You now have people to hold you accountable and a cue in your calendar to remind you to prep for it. Category: People and Process
  • Remember the recycling example I gave in point #1? Another way you could encourage your company to recycle more is to have recycling containers always within a few walking steps away and landfill containers farther away. Category: Physical and Layout


5. The Propinquity Principle / Proximity Effect

Leon Festinger was the first to examine how architectural space and distance affects relationships. There are different types of propinquity, but in the sense of our environment we want propinquity to simply mean physical proximity, or how close things are to each other. This sociological theory is also known as the proximity effect.

A book called Influencer: The Power to Change Anything discusses some interesting studies that illustrate the propinquity principle in action. One study mentioned took place at Bell Labs and sought to determine which factors affect two scientists collaborating:

The best predictor was the distance between their offices. Scientists who worked next to one another were three times more likely to discuss technical topics that lead to collaboration than scientists who sat 30 feet from one another. Put them 90 feet apart, and they are as likely to collaborate as those who work several miles away! The probability of collaboration sharply decreases in a matter of a few feet.

A few more great excerpts to keep you thinking:

Apartment dwellers who are located near stairwells are acquainted with more people than individuals who have fewer people walking by their front doors. People who live across from mailboxes are acquainted with more of their neighbors than anyone else in the building…

Distance keeps people from routinely interacting, and often leads to animosity [among distant groups]. If you want to predict who doesn’t trust or get along with whom in a company, take out a tape measure.

The basic point of propinquity is the farther away people are physically located, the less likely they are to have high quality interactions with other team members.

Concrete Examples

  • Propinquity is a challenge we face at Atomic Object. We have three offices, and it’s not uncommon for a team to be made up of members from different offices. To foster relationships between employees who don’t have as many opportunities to interact, Atomic encourages people to take what we call a Pair Lunch—two Atoms (no more, no less) go out for lunch, and Atomic covers the bill. I have personally found this policy to be highly effective and it’s a cheap price for a company to pay for strong interpersonal relationships. Category: People and Process
  • There are criticisms of an open office environment, the biggest of which is probably noise distractions decreasing productivity. However, as the research I stated earlier suggests, I think if done correctly, the benefits outweigh the negatives. I think the key is providing enough quiet areas and private spaces, so employees can go to them when needed. I worked in a cubicle before coming to Atomic, and there is just something about the whole team sitting around the same table that feels so much more natural.Category: Physical and Layout
  • If going open is too crazy of an idea for your team, I think providing and encouraging usage of common areas and/or participation in activities is a step in the right direction. For example, in our Detroit office we have a semi-daily routine that once 3pm rolls around, the whole office takes a 15 minute break and meets in the back to play hacky sack. It allows us to stretch our legs and talk with people outside of our individual project. Category: Physical and Process

Most teams are teams in the first place because they trying to solve a problem or create something that requires multiple heads. As a result, I think just about any team can benefit from increasing the frequency and quality of the interactions experienced between team members.

Listen for “Excuses”

I chose to start this post with “fish discover water last” because before doing research on this topic, I never consciously considered my environment when trying to solve a problem.

In a society as individualistic as the United States, our knee jerk reaction is to blame people, not their environment or current life circumstances. Even though, when dealing with our own shortcomings, we don’t hesitate to look outward to our environments and circumstances for blame. Whenever you hear someone or yourself giving an “excuse,” listen. It may be a good indicator of an opportunity for you to manipulate the environment to solve a problem.

For example, let’s say Thomas is frequently late for work. You might conclude that’s he’s just a lazy person. But he might say, “I’m finding it hard to get to bed on time managing all of my responsibilities.” You might respond to Thomas’ “excuse” by renovating the company gym, buying standing, tredmill, or bike desks in the office, so employees can get more exercise in during their workday. Or you might hire a dry cleaning company to pick up and drop off clothes so employees can save individual trips to the dry cleaner. There are many ways an environmental change at the office might help him improve his work/life balance.

Next time you’re faced with a problem—personal or work related—don’t try to change yourself or other people. Instead think about the people, processes, information, physical objects and how they are affecting one another for potential solutions. Use “things” to enforce positive behaviors that bring you closer to your goals and “things” to discourage behaviors that get in the way of your goals. After all, we have much more control over “things” than we do people. You are limited only by your ability to think outside of the box.

As a side note, I’d love to hear from readers about any unique problems you solved using your environment. You can comment below or email me at [email protected].


In addition to the Wikipedia articles referenced in the links here are some research articles and inspiration drawn upon for this blog post:

Broken windows: George Kelling and Catherine Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in
Our Communities
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 152

Food studies: Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think (New York: Bantam Books, 2006)

Effects of space and propinquity: L. Festinger, S. Schachter, and K. Back, Social Pressure in Informal Groups (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1950), Chapter 4

Desk proximity: Robert Kraut, Carmen Edgido, and Jolene Galegher, Patterns of Contact and Communication in Scientific Research Collaboration (New York: ACM Press, 1988)

Points 1, 2, and 4: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler Influencer: The Power To Change Anything (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), Chapter 9